“It’s Christmas, isn’t it? She answered, “Your custom?”
“Yes. Can I open it now?” I asked.
“Yes, please do.”
I unwrapped the small gift and hidden inside were two handmade white doilies, one for a cup and the other for a plate, lined in green stitching along the outside edges.
“Thank you; they are beautiful.”
“You are welcome,” she beamed back. It was a special moment in what otherwise had seemed like a gloomy day.
“Merry Christmas,” I said. “I am sorry you have to work.” I knew she had two kids at home, but I wasn’t sure if they celebrated Christmas.
“It’s okay,” she said.
We said good night, and Joy and I headed back up to our room. I thought we would spend a quiet evening watching CNN and MTV, but as always, at least for me, there is the rest of the story. After feeling sorry for myself and moping around for an hour, I called the Murphys. It was late enough I hoped I wouldn’t wake them up, but I couldn’t wait any longer.
“Merry Christmas!” I shouted excitedly into the phone. A lot of love can be shared in a short amount of time. Manisha was happy to talk to me and told me about all the things Santa had brought her.
“When are you coming home? I miss you,” she said.
“I miss you, too, Honey. I will be home soon.”
I thought in my heart, though, not soon enough. Tears welled up in my eyes as I regretted that I couldn’t be with both my daughters for Christmas. Jenni had shared the pictures of Joy with Manisha and I hoped she could focus on meeting her new baby sister. It was a short conversation, but I felt better having heard her sweet voice across the ocean, reminding me that although we weren’t together in person, she was with me in spirit.
As I watched television feeling homesick, I heard noises outside, louder than the usual honking of horns and vehicular traffic. I picked up Joy and we walked back downstairs to the lobby. I felt excitement in the air with faint Christmas music barely audible above the sporadic street noise.
“What’s going on?” I asked the young lady who had given me the gift earlier.
“It’s the Christmas celebration,” she said.
What celebration? I thought to myself. Vietnam is a communist country and they don’t celebrate Christmas, or so I thought.
I quickly ran back up to our room, grabbed our coats and stroller, and carried Joy down the steps into the cool night air. I could see crowds up ahead on Hue Street walking toward Hoan Kiem Lake.
We joined the crowd, and as we approached, Hanoi’s version of Christmas spread out before us. The lake was decorated with Christmas lights, and a large Christmas tree adorned with presents took center stage. A cardboard Santa Claus was displayed near the tree. A little baby swing decorated in colorful leis was set up to take pictures.
Crowds gathered in the streets wearing red Santa stocking caps and carrying balloons. I couldn’t decide if the “party” resembled a parade or people gathering for a concert. A festive, family atmosphere filled the air, and the lake was packed with Vietnamese families.
I was excited to have something to do. Uplifting, holiday music wafted from the loudspeakers over the noisy crowd. I wanted to know where the music was coming from. It had a sweet-sounding familiarity, like a piece of chocolate to a hungry soul. I wanted to grab it and not let go.
In such an anti-Christian country, I never thought I would hear Christmas music broadcast in downtown Hanoi. Many of our Christmas songs have a message of “tidings of great joy,” with Jesus as a baby in the manger. Even though the celebration was steeped in commercialism, the familiar words from Christmas carols filled the air, giving me hope that all was well with my soul. I pushed Joy in her stroller to the nearby church a few hundred feet from where the music came.
My soul was enraptured with joy, a balm for my homesick heart. I longed to be with friends and family. Here I could sing in harmony, filled with the Christmas spirit, enveloped in oneness with those around me who were here for a different experience, but so far from home, I welcomed Christmas in another culture.
For a brief moment, I understood Ephesians 4:5. There is unity in the world, “one body, one hope, one baptism, one God and father of all.” I felt a connection to the Vietnamese people. For some, this might be the only testimony to the risen Savior they would ever witness, but as Isaiah 55:11 says, “My word…will not return to me empty.”
God had given me a taste of Christmas in Hanoi that I would always treasure. We returned to the Lake and I took Joy over to the Christmas tree and swing. She was intrigued by the bobbing balloons tied to the Santa and stared wide-eyed at the Christmas lights strung around.
I handed the camera to someone to take our picture. Standing in front of a cardboard Santa Claus, the bittersweet moment was captured, now kept in the scrapbook that I had won years earlier, a memoir of the past I didn’t want to forget.
Today, as I remember that night, many years later, I thank God for all the Christmases we have had since then. Jesus is the reason for the season. Let us be thankful for what He has done for us and praise Him with the heavenly hosts. Christmas is magical even for adults!